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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 8.4 (2001) 317-322

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On Wolfgang Blankenburg, Common Sense, and Schizophrenia

Aaron L. Mishara


In its increasing openness to neuroscience (Cowan, Harter, and Kandel 2000) and other of its neighboring disciplines, mainstream biological psychiatry has allowed psychopathology, philosophy, and philosophical approaches to psychopathology to play an increased role in current research interests. Given this new openness, and the acknowledgment of the severity of one of psychiatry's most debilitating, costly, and intractable disorders, 1 the translation of W. Blankenburg's 1969 article concerning the psychopathology of common sense does not merely serve historical interest. It is an exceptional example of a not well-known trend in German- and French-speaking psychiatry to apply philosophical phenomenology and existentialism to psychopathological research. This trend, which reached a peak in the late 1950s and was strong well into the 1970s, has dwindling, but nevertheless, current representatives in Heidelberg and Zurich and is scattered in a few other places in Europe, Japan, the United States, and South America. The view of the Zeitgeist—which may sound astonishing, even antiquated to contemporary readers—was highly ambitious: Conceptual approaches, such as philosophical ("transcendental") phenomenology, were expected to supply knowledge about the structure of consciousness and its disturbance in various mental disorders.

Following the lead of Binswanger and Szilasi, who viewed schizophrenia as an "experiment of nature" that enables us to view underlying processes otherwise hidden to "natural, everyday consciousness," Blankenburg believed that it may be possible to map the formal properties of the psychopathology of schizophrenia—precisely in the loss of common sense—as a disturbance to the basic organization of conscious experience. Any attempt to summarize this rather abstract and complex approach in a brief commentary would be ill advised. In passing, rather, I will remark that such efforts could have profound relevance to the current research of schizophrenia and its underlying neurobiology. This research has gradually acknowledged the importance of taking the patient's subjective experience of the disorder into account (Mishara, Parnas, and Naudin 1998). In this commentary, I will first give an account of the biographical and clinical reasons that led Blankenburg to turn to the problem of common sense and its relevance for schizophrenia. I will then explore what implications [End Page 317] his work may have for more recent findings concerning schizophrenia.

Blankenburg's Intellectual Development

Born in 1928, W. Blankenburg, the son of a Lufthansa pilot who pioneered transatlantic commercial flights, began his studies in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1947. While at Freiburg, Blankenburg heard lectures in philosophy given by E. Fink (the former assistant to Husserl) and Max Mueller, and in psychology, by R. Heiss and others. After three years, Blankenburg turned to the study of medicine, producing a dissertation in 1956 on an application of Daseinsanalysis (Heidegger and Binswanger) to a case of paranoid schizophrenia. Binswanger wrote the forward to the publication. Between 1956 and 1958, Blankenburg studied internal medicine in Heidelberg with the accomplished phenomenologist of bodily experience (Leibphaenomenologer) and student of V. von Weizsaecker Herbert Pluegge. He spent one semester in Goettingen where he attended lectures by the ontological philosopher Nicolai Hartmann, who provided for Blankenburg a more useful approach to the problem of nature and natural science than Heidegger's primary emphasis on the question of Being. During his Freiburg years, Blankenburg attended small seminars led by Heidegger in the Schwarzwald forest. (Heidegger had been forbidden to teach after the end of World War II.) Blankenburg recalls that the participants would sit on logs in an open field as if to invoke Heidegger's concept of the clearing (Lichtung) of Being. While not entirely sympathetic with Heidegger's philosophy, Blankenburg learned to carefully "listen"—as Heidegger would repeatedly emphasize—to language, not merely poetic or philosophical language, but the language of the patients he would meet in clinical practice.

During this time, Blankenburg heard lectures by W. Szilasi, the philosopher-scientist who held Husserl's and Heidegger's chair in the department of philosophy. Szilasi collaborated with the phenomenological psychiatrist, L. Binswanger. Their effort to apply concepts from Husserl's...


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